It is not yet a deluge, but there is certainly a gathering stream of business leaders willing to take a more decisive stance in the Scottish independence debate.
As we approach the six month countdown to referendum day, more and more businesses appear to be shedding their inhibitions and opting to take the plunge. In just over a week we have seen statements from the chief executive of BP, the outgoing chief executive of Sainsbury’s, the chairman of Orion Group and a leading figure at the Pension Insurance Corporation setting out concerns with or outright hostility towards independence.
Nevertheless, these voices continue to be notable as the exceptions rather than the rule, with a majority of businesses continuing to keep their cards close to their chests.
But could this be about to change? It is an interesting and little commented upon fact that companies may be under a legal obligation to set out their analysis of the risks of independence.
The Companies Act 2006 compels any firm not exempted as a “small company” to publish a business review as part of the obligatory director’s report for each financial year. This business review must contain:
“a) a fair review of the company’s business, and b) a description of the principal risks and uncertainties facing the company”.
Or, as the Financial Reporting Council told Scotland on Sunday: “If boards consider that a vote in favour of Scottish independence is a strategic issue or a principal risk, then disclosure should be made”.
For some companies who have been reticent in setting out their views on the referendum for fear of becoming embroiled in a highly charged political debate, such a formal obligation may provide the perfect cover to set out the impact as they see it in a dry, non-political context.
It will be for individual businesses to assess the implications of independence for their firm – and by no means all will regard it as a “risk” – but it is difficult to imagine that almost all will not categorise it as an “uncertainty”. The slight tightening in the opinion polls of late will only add to this.
With the end of the financial year in sight, a slew of major companies will be publishing their annual business reviews. For those tracking business attitudes towards the referendum, they will make for essential reading.
Simon Fitzpatrick is Scotland analyst at Cicero Group